portion sizes have become gigantic

portion sizes have become gigantic

Let's go back in time today, and take a snapshot of life from one generation ago. (For me, one generation is 30-35 years ago, since my two boys were born when I was 30 and 35 years old.) Let's go back 35 years for today's thought experiment, back to 1977.

Americans were smaller in 1977, and so were our portion sizes.

From my post on obesity trends since 1985, we can see that no state had more than 14% of its population listed with a BMI > 30, which is about 30 lbs overweight for somebody who is 5' 4". We can also see that about half the states didn't even track this data; obesity simply wasn't a frequent enough occurrence to track. And this is from 1985; I'm willing to bet the numbers were even smaller in 1977. (for those of you who didn't read that post, in 2009 not one state was < 15%, and most states were > 25%.)

When you wanted a BIG hamburger from a fast food joint back in 1977, you turned to McDonald's Big Mac. The jingle had been running for a couple of years by then, so we all knew it by heart: "two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.."

The Big Mac was not small, weighing in with 3.2 oz of beef and 540 calories. Yes, read that again, it was called the BIG Mac, yet it had less than 1/4 pound of burger. And the 540 calories, while not something you'd want to eat everyday as part of a healthy diet, probably wasn't enough to tip the scales into obesity, since you could probably eat a Big Mac for lunch and still keep your total daily caloric intake to under 2,000 calories.

The Big Gulp had yet to be invented yet (see Big Gulp - the most expensive product in history?), so you were left to wash that big burger down with a regular sized soda.

In fact, portion sizes have changed pretty much across the board - see the video below. First one company would release a bigger version of the product or meal, and have a competitive advantage. Next the competitors in the market would follow suit to remove the competitive advantage and bring back a level playing field. And finally, any new entrants into the market would need to offer the larger size or they wouldn't have a chance to compete. Once this happened, the new, larger sizes became the standard sizes going forward. This happened with all types of foods: drinks, sandwiches, bags of chips, bagels, donuts, restaurant portion sizes.. pretty much everywhere you looked - the Family Size or Value Size became the Normal Size.

Video from channelone news.

Going back to 1977 again, we weren't hungry. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had plenty of snacks and desserts. Yet there was no obesity epidemic. And why not? Portion sizes.

We can talk about kids not getting as much exercise today (and not playing outdoors all day, yadda yadda yadda), and I agree with that, but that's another topic altogether. It's not like every adult in America worked out like crazy back in 1977. Some did, some didn't - much like today. And yet portion sizes are the major difference. The obesity epidemic, and all its related risks and health care costs, can be traced, in large part, to the change in portion sizes over the last generation.

Get back to portion sizes from a generation ago, and we can get our weight back to what it was a generation ago.

-Chris Butterworth